Book Review by Mike Silver:
The Gods of War: Boxing Essays by Springs Toledo - (Tora Books. Date Published: 2014, 204 pages. Illustrated).
In the words of author/historian Springs Toledo boxing “has a way of punching right through the flimsy shield of false ego to expose the truth about a man. Any flaws underneath are forced to the surface: deficiency of will, low pain tolerance, self-consciousness, fear.” In another essay he describes the Philadelphia boxing scene of the early 1960s as a place “where fighters rise out of the cracked concrete like black Spartans with rap sheets.” Obviously, the man has a way with words.
This short review cannot do justice to The Gods of War: Boxing Essays by Springs Toledo. Every page is a gem unto itself. The author is not only a master wordsmith he also possesses a sophisticated understanding of the technical and psychological aspects of boxing. This quickly becomes apparent in an early chapter titled “Fireworks and Falling Giants” where he points out how to beat Wladimir Klitchko: “More important than the size of the car and what’s under the hood is the psychology of who is driving. Klitschko has been stopped three times by aggressive men who bounced shots off his head until something inside him broke. When dealing with sustained aggression, he seems to panic. When hurt, he has been prone to come apart…Klitschko is not dangerous when his opponent is. He doesn’t punch when he is being punched. This is not only a glimpse into an elemental weakness; it is a key to victory...he is no more unbeatable than Willard was ninety years ago.”
In another essay he divines the true reason behind Sugar Ray Leonard’s loss to Roberto Duran in their first fight: “Leonard’s strategy in Montreal was deliberate and sound”, he writes. “After it failed, Dundee and Leonard revised history and a willing press has gone along with it ever since. We’ve been spoon-fed a fable that has long-since crystalized into boxing lore…and it sprang from the idea that Leonard “did not fight his fight” because Duran challenged his masculinity”. As Toledo correctly points out: “When both fighters were at their best, Duran was better.”
The Gods of War is a collection of 21 essays by an author who takes us on a journey that is both extremely satisfying and educational. His essay on Jewish fighters of the early 20th century (in which he draws parallels to the Jewish-Roman war 2000 years earlier), and his four chapters devoted to the rise and fall of Sonny Liston are worth the price of the book alone. But the icing on the cake of this remarkable collection is ten separate essays in which he rates the ten greatest boxers since 1920. Seven criteria are used to rate the “gods of war”.
After reading all the chapters I found it hard to argue with any of the choices. Coming in at number ten is Charley Burley, followed by Willie Pep in the ninth spot. The greatest of them all, he writes, is neither Muhammad Ali nor the original Sugar Ray. You will have to get the book to see who the author considers the ultimate “god of war”.
I have read dozens of excellent boxing books and I can unequivocally say this is one of the very best. To read the author’s passionate and colorful prose coupled with his depth of knowledge is an unmitigated joy for both boxing purists and casual fans. Those who cannot fathom why so many of us are fascinated by this sport may get a better handle on the reasons after reading The Gods of War. It is a work of intelligence and truth and I thank Springs Toledo for having written it.
Note: Mike Silver is a boxing historian and the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishing Co., 2008).
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